Latest Reviews
Friday
May302014

A Million Ways to Die in the West

There’s a moment in Seth MacFarlane’s previous film, “Ted,” where Ted the bear makes a joke, which is then told again by another character in a slightly different way. Ted then remarks in a condescending manner that the character did nothing more but repackage his own joke and deliver it again. It was an ironic moment because MacFarlane, for all of his perceived edginess, has been doing that for years. Despite a setting that, in a more flexible comedian’s hands, should prevent the same old gags from reoccurring, his latest, “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” manages to include more of the redundant, played out humor he’s known for in a shoddy looking movie with a poor story and jokes that are intended to shock or offend rather than amuse. While I’m sure fans will find something to appreciate, I personally found this to be the worst comedy since Adam Sandler’s “Grown Ups 2” and easily one of the worst of the year.

The thin plot follows Albert (MacFarlane), a lowly sheep farmer in 1882 Arizona. His girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), has just broken up with him and he’s lost without her. In an effort to win her back, he befriends a pretty woman named Anna (Charlize Theron), who agrees to pose as his new girlfriend and teach him the skills he needs to impress her. What Albert doesn’t know is that Anna is actually the wife of the most famous outlaw in the West, Clinch (Liam Neeson), and if he finds out what Albert is doing with Anna, he’s a-gonna be lookin’ for revenge.

“A Million Ways to Die in the West” starts promisingly enough. Similar to a film from the heyday of the Western genre, the credits play before the movie starts, complete with a stylized font, while sweeping shots of the majestic Western lands and a musical composition befitting of the genre set the stage for your senses. Unfortunately, any hopes for intelligent genre parody, or even homage, are dashed shortly after, the bulk of the film’s jokes coming from a mindset that believes merely hearing modern phrases and curse words in the context of the old West is somehow funny. When the first joke is meant to instill giggles in the 13 year olds in the audience who still think merely hearing a curse word is funny, you naturally assume “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is likely to put forth a minimum amount of effort.

And such assumptions aren’t only justified; they’re proven to be correct. As the film goes on, it repeatedly sinks to the lowest common denominator, relying once again on the most puerile jokes imaginable. To put things into perspective, a penis joke, gay joke and racist joke all appear within the first minute of Albert’s introduction, and the rest of the film never rises above it. Take, for instance, the recurring jokes about a Christian prostitute “saving” herself for marriage, which aren’t funny the first two or three times, much less the 14th or 15th times when the film still hasn’t let it go by the end of its overly long and exhausting two hour runtime. At one point, a periphery character makes a lousy joke and Albert turns toward the camera and asks why anyone would think what is being said is funny, the irony being that I had been asking myself the same thing the entire movie, as nothing that comes before it (or after) is any better.

If one relief comes from this film, it’s that there isn’t a 9/11 joke, a strange fixation MacFarlane has, what with it appearing in both “Ted” and countless episodes of “Family Guy.” One could argue the exclusion is due to the time period the film is set in, but such is not the case, particularly when he makes references to other films with non-sequiturs that differentiate themselves from MacFarlane’s television endeavors only in that there are no cutaways; they are instead just stumbled upon.

What it all boils down to is that “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is lazy. Its jokes are obvious, like when it unamusingly points out that a single dollar was a lot of money back then, and many of them are in poor taste, like when Albert and Anna go to the “Runaway Slave” shooting booth at the town fair. There are a handful of deserving chuckles, usually when the film actually makes an attempt to parody the times, but those moments are few and far between and certainly aren’t plentiful enough to justify sitting through this bloated and meandering comedic disaster.

A Million Ways to Die in the West receives 0.5/5

Friday
May232014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

The “X-Men” movie franchise has had a bumpy ride. It started off strong, but then stumbled with “X-Men: The Last Stand” in 2006 before hitting its lowest point with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in 2009. It has been on a steady upward swing ever since and once again found its footing with 2011’s “X-Men: First Class.” But the newest film, “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” is on a whole other level. This is easily the best “X-Men” movie to date, a wildly entertaining, perfectly acted, visually stunning comic book movie that reaches levels few other comic book movies have. The buzz so far this year has been all about the latest “Captain America,” but after sitting through this, don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering what all the fuss was about.

In the early 70s, a doctor by the name of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) had a grand plan. Due to what he saw as an inherent danger to the human species by mutants, he proposed the creation of robots called sentinels that could sniff out mutants and exterminate them. The plan was initially turned down, but after his death by the hands of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the government moved forward with it by utilizing Mystique’s DNA, which allowed these sentinels to adapt to the powers being used against them. Now, nearly all mutants, as well as regular humans who have the dormant mutant gene in them, have been wiped out. Only a select few remain, including Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). One of the remaining mutants, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), has the ability to transport someone’s consciousness to the past, allowing them to alter history to their liking. The process can be damaging to one’s brain the further back in time one goes, but luckily, Wolverine has regenerative abilities and volunteers to take up the task. With time running out, he is transported back to 1973 to try to convince the younger Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor X (James McAvoy) to help him stop Mystique from killing Trask and, thus, ending the mutant/human war before it begins.

It sounds complicated what with the constant back and forth and jet-setting narrative that jumps from New York City to Moscow to China to Vietnam to Paris to Washington, DC and back again, but it never is. “Days of Future Past” is a brilliantly constructed film, a cohesive whole in every way. Not once does it hit a narrative lull or forget to follow up on side stories. It takes dozens of characters, from both the past and present, and juggles them all flawlessly, with characters disappearing only after their narrative usefulness has concluded. No single character is included as fan service, but rather because they are necessary to tell the story at hand.

The beauty of it is that “Days of Future Past” never sacrifices story for spectacle. Everything that makes the X-Men characters great is intact here, including the overall themes of tolerance, acceptance and doing right to others despite the wrong they may do to you. In today’s world of rampant homophobia and other forms of bigotry, the X-Men have never been more relevant and “Days of Future Past” benefits from a setting where such bigotry was more commonplace and where America had just been on the losing end of an unpopular war. Because of the latter, the call to war against the mutants seems less like a necessity than it does a need to retain political legitimacy, to show the people of America that the country is still powerful. Despite its historical setting, the film works today by highlighting increased political tension that leads to unrest, a tension that exists today and seems to only be getting worse.

Even if you took away the terrific story and thought provoking themes, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” would be a mesmerizing film, thanks to some of the most mind-blowing superhero action ever put to screen. In particular, one scene focusing on Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is guaranteed to be one of the best, most exciting and funniest moments you’ll see all year. From the moment the film begins, a high bar is set with its action, but instead of dropping off until the slam-bang finale as many films do, it actually gets better as it goes on. Aside from some needless 3D effects, the visuals are astounding and really bring these scenes, and the overall world, to life. Director Bryan Singer, coming off of a two film slump with “Valkyrie” and “Jack and the Giant Slayer,” has never been better. The things he manages to pull off and the control he shows over what would in lesser hands be a cluttered mess makes this his single most impressive endeavor to date.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” is a special movie. Even those who are finding themselves diagnosed with superhero fatigue after the onslaught of films we’ve been given over the last few years will find their interest reinvigorated after this. Singer does with this what Joss Whedon tried to do with “The Avengers,” but failed: he skillfully juggles each character, giving each important player just enough screen time to make them narratively relevant, and creates a meaningful story amidst the insane action. You could even argue that whereas each of the Avengers were primarily off doing their own things in that film (Iron Man flying around the buildings, Thor fighting his brother on top of one, Captain America fighting baddies on the ground, etc.), the X-Men use their powers in tandem, as a singular group fighting a common enemy, not as multiple heroes spread across a large area, which gives them more of a dynamic in the otherwise hectic action scenes.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” sets a new standard for superhero movies. It reaches about as close to perfection as is possible and is guaranteed to be one of the best of the year. X-Men fan or not, you’re going to want to see this one.

X-Men: Days of Future Past receives 5/5

Thursday
May222014

Blended

It’s easy to understand if some cinemagoers have given up on Adam Sandler. Despite some solid performances in movies like “Reign Over Me” and “Punch-Drunk Love” and a few (arguably) funny early films, he has, at this point, fallen off the wagon. With a five film run (excluding animated voice work) of “Grown Ups,” “Just Go With It,” “Jack and Jill,” “That’s My Boy” and “Grown Ups 2,” only “Just Go With It” managed to be even remotely watchable, while “Grown Ups 2” can easily be labeled with no hyperbole as one of the absolute worst comedies ever made. However, it doesn’t appear he’s totally lost, as evidenced by his latest, “Blended.” While a positive reception to it could very well be due to the disastrously low expectations Sandler has set for his movies over the last few years, there’s a certain warmth to it that makes it more than the sum of its parts.

In his third outing with Drew Barrymore, Sandler plays Jim, a manager at a local Dick’s Sporting Goods store who has a terrible first date with Lauren, played by Barrymore. Neither are interested in the other, so they part ways expecting to never see each other again. However, a chance circumstance lands them both at an African resort where they are booked to participate in a number of couples events. Along with them are Lauren’s two boys, one a reckless danger to himself and the other just discovering his sexuality, and Jim’s three girls, the oldest of which is developing a crush for the first time, terrifying Jim. However, their attraction grows while on the vacation and they each develop bonds with the other’s kids, which leads them somewhere unexpected.

“Blended” has a leg up when compared to Sandler’s recent filmography. Whereas films like “Grown Ups” and its sequel didn’t even bother with a story, this film’s ideas and themes center around its story. Sure, it’s predictable, but there’s heart to it and its family value themes come naturally rather than forced like in “Jack and Jill.” Similarly, the kids aren’t just throwaway figures like they have been in previous movies. They’re integral to the film’s meaning. Each of Jim’s children misses their mother, who died of cancer, and they each have their own ways of coping. The middle child, for instance, likes to pretend that her mom is still there, an invisible force that she speaks to and saves a spot at the dinner table for. Jim, who also misses their mother more than anything in the world, goes along with it, understanding the pain his daughter feels.

Both Jim and Lauren, the latter of whom is dealing with the resentment from her children for leaving their deadbeat father, have the best intentions and are trying to make the most out of a life that hasn’t quite gone as they planned. They’re both flawed, particularly Jim, who dresses his girls up in boyish clothes and styles their hair in the female equivalent of a bowl cut, but they’re doing their best, both clearly out of their comfort zones when they have to deal with issues that their spouses would have traditionally handled, like when Lauren finds a hidden centerfold under her son’s bed or when Jim’s oldest daughter hits that time of the month.

They say the quickest way to someone’s heart is through their kids, so it comes as no surprise that it’s they who end up sparking the attraction between Jim and Lauren while in Africa. Each help the other in various ways and as more layers of Jim and Lauren are revealed, their desire to spend more time with each other grows. These moments are genuine too. At first, some of the jabs they take at each other are a little mean spirited, but more often than not, they’re nothing more than playful pokes, the type of innocent jokes any loving couple shares with each other.

On top of all that, “Blended” is actually pretty funny, surprisingly so after Sandler’s last few abominations. Granted, likable characters make for a more pleasant and humorous experience, but some of the jokes are genuinely clever, like when it upends the post-makeover slow-mo entrance scene made popular by romantic comedies in the 80s and 90s with transitioning music based on the reactions of those looking on, including Jim’s horrified expression as he realizes his little girl will now be an object of desire for the boys around her. It even nails the awkwardness of first dates; those who have ever been on a bad one will get to see the old “planned emergency phone call” escape we’ve all wanted to try, but never had the guts to.

With all that said, “Blended” is still not a great movie. It has just as many jokes that land with a thud as it does that actually work and some late movie dramatics pile on the cheese, despite previous false set-ups that could have circumvented it. “Blended” stumbles a ton, that’s for sure, but when it’s at its best, it finds real meaning. It’s touching and doesn’t feel exhausting despite its nearly two hour runtime, which includes a recurring bit from Terry Crews where he shows up in the most random places to sing, a bit that should get old, but, oddly, never does. This is a major step up for Sandler after his previous debacles. Let’s hope he continues this upward swing and realizes his potential because I’m not sure I could suffer through a “Grown Ups 3.”

Blended receives 3.5/5

Thursday
May152014

Godzilla

It’s always interesting to see how a director will fare when transitioning from a miniscule independent film to a big budget studio blockbuster. One hopes that the director will bring his or her independent background into the blockbuster and focus on characters and story rather than effects and explosions. Following his terrific low budget 2010 film, “Monsters,” director Gareth Edwards attempts to do just that with the American reboot, “Godzilla,” but it’s a give and take. The focus is indeed the characters and story, but those things are, unfortunately, not very interesting. In a way, it’s like last summer’s “Pacific Rim.” It’s slim on characterization, but it gets by on its fun and impressive action scenes. It’s not the epic movie one might expect from the outstanding trailers, but as a summer tent-pole release, “Godzilla” is entertaining enough.

The movie begins in in the late 90s and follows Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), a nuclear physicist and engineer at a Japanese nuclear plant. One day, some seismic activity rattles the foundation of the plant, which ends up killing Joe’s wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche). Flash forward 15 years and Joe has become obsessed with the event, swearing that the tremors they felt were not natural, but rather from some type of creature that has been lying dormant for many years. His son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), now all grown up and in the Navy, thinks he’s crazy, but, as is typical with these types of movies, it turns out he’s not and the next thing they know, a creature, dubbed a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object), unearths and starts wreaking havoc on the country’s citizens.

Don’t be fooled by the above synopsis and the misleading trailers. While “Godzilla” clearly hopes to ride the popularity of Cranston at the height of his career after a successful stint on “Breaking Bad,” early movie events turn the focus on Ford and Aaron Taylor-Johnson simply isn’t able to carry it to its conclusion. While Cranston’s character is a bit of a cliché in regards to monster movie archetypes, being the seemingly crazy one who is the only one who actually knows the truth, his motivations are nevertheless noble. It’s the love for his wife that drives him to do what he does, which could have worked as the heart and meaning behind the film. Unfortunately, his character becomes nothing more than a catalyst to thrust Johnson to the forefront.

Though it might come as a surprise for those expecting a bombastic monster movie, “Godzilla” chooses to focus on its human characters. Much like “Monsters,” Edwards tries to create a human story out of its creature feature origins, but unlike “Monsters,” the characters, story and themes simply aren’t established well enough to be very interesting. Take, for instance, Ford’s family in San Francisco, a young boy and a wife named Elle, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen brings her natural beauty and talent to the proceedings, but her role is minimal and underdeveloped. The connection the two have is thin, so when Ford is in danger, nothing is felt. He could be eaten whole or ripped in half and the tragedy would be lost on the majority of viewers who have rightfully invested nothing into what’s going on.

What it all boils down to is that Edwards, with a bigger budget and expanded scope, simply doesn’t seem comfortable and is unable to find a rhythm, instead relying on overdramatic character introductions, cheesy motivational speeches and on-the-nose foreshadowing to move his story along (“It’s not the end of the world,” one characters says moments before the potential end-of-the-world event begins). Luckily for the viewers he would lose otherwise, he doesn’t waste much time getting to the action. Sure, it’s so quick that when Joe’s wife inevitably bites the dust, it doesn’t really resonate, but it remains exciting and Godzilla’s introduction is enough to put a big, stupid smile on anyone’s face. It even manages to throw in a few references to both Godzilla movies past and other popular monster movies, including an opening reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 film, “Alien.”

If you’re looking for something with more depth than your typical monster movie, “Godzilla” won’t do much for you, but if that’s the case, why are you watching “Godzilla” anyway? Despite some narrative stumbles and a central character that is impossible to care about, the movie delivers exactly what fans want: monster battles and rampant destruction. It’s a good jumping off point for future installments as well. Past movies, including Roland Emmerich’s 1998 reboot, were a bit silly, but this new film sets a darker foundation, one that could lead to rich drama in more confident hands. As it stands, however, “Godzilla” is unlikely to garner too high of praise, but it’s an entertaining summer movie nonetheless.

Godzilla receives 3/5

Friday
May092014

Neighbors

Comedies, perhaps more than any other genre, are subjective. While all can agree that a drama about the loss of a child is inherently sad, not everyone will agree on what is funny. Our senses of humor have been shaped by our upbringing and the various life events we’ve experienced. Some may find humor in blacker than black comedies about death while others simply want their comedies to be lighthearted and goofy. However, there’s a subgenre that of comedy that can only be described as cruel comedy. This cruel humor is what fuels the new Seth Rogen and Zac Efron film, “Neighbors.” If you’re averse to comedy that stems from unlikable characters doing bad things to each other, as I am, this film won’t do much for you. Despite some legitimate laughs, the pervading savagery on display is enough to make “Neighbors” little more than a waste of time.

The story is simple. Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) move into a nice neighborhood with their infant child. They’ve poured nearly everything they have into their new house and are hoping that this will give them the opportunity to raise their kid in a peaceful, happy environment. Their hopes are dashed, however, when a fraternity moves in next door. Despite some initial kind words, a feud eventually breaks out between the couple and the frat, led by President Teddy Sanders (Efron), after a late night party that prevents them from getting a good night’s rest. Mac and Kelly’s only goal from there on out is to get them to leave, no matter what the cost.

The movie tries to set this story up with Teddy as the antagonist, the evil, unruly hellion turning Mac and Kelly’s lives into a waking nightmare, while Mac and Kelly are the heroes we’re supposed to root for. However, Mac and Kelly are no better than Teddy. They manipulate Teddy and his crew while they facilitate many acts of sabotage. Frankly, nobody in this movie handles themselves in a way befitting an actual person and their actions only prove to make things worse. It’s lucky they’re in a movie because in a real world context, they would all be thrown in jail.

Prior to their feud, Mac and Kelly join Teddy and his frat during a party. Their hope is that it will make them seem cool to the kids and, in return, they’ll respect them when they ask them to keep it down, but the night leads to debauchery. They leave their infant child alone in their house while they dance next door abusing any harmful substance they can get their hands on. These people, regardless of their initial intentions, aren’t fit to be parents and the only appropriate following scene would be for child services to show up and take their kid away.

Teddy is even worse and actually goes out of his way to cause harm to the others. At one point, he steals the airbags out of Mac and Kelly’s car and hides them around their house. This leads to some of the dumbest slapstick humor one can imagine, where a slight burst of air sends them flying all the way across the room like an explosion just went off. After Teddy falls prey to a couple of these hidden objects, he begins to search around, poking his furniture with a wooden pole to see if it contains an airbag. He hesitates before poking his child’s bed and lets out a thankful sigh when nothing happens, which is supposed to show that Teddy, as ruthless as he can be, would never sink so low. Unfortunately, that pesky thing called logic rears its ugly head when you consider that Teddy could have very easily been holding his child when he fell culprit to the other hidden airbags, potentially killing it. Teddy, in a very real sense, puts their lives in danger. This, along with so many more violent and abrasive shenanigans, makes the cheery ending seem forced and very, very unlikely.

I imagine many will wonder why this matters in a comedy—as long as you’re laughing, who cares—but there’s more to it than that. “Neighbors” does indeed have some legitimate laughs. Rogen is just as funny as ever, despite a considerable lack of help from Rose Byrne, who just doesn’t have the comedic chops to pull off rolls like this, and Efron plays his character well. The problem is that his character, along with Rogen’s, is cruel, leading to unlikable situations and making many of those potential laughs moot.

If what I’ve written sounds to you like a curmudgeon stupidly complaining about morality in a silly movie that shouldn’t be taken seriously, then you’ll likely enjoy “Neighbors,” and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it rubbed me the wrong way. I’d love to see a movie with these two paired up again, one that doesn’t rely on cruelty to garner laughs, but if one must go in that direction, there’s a fine line between a mean spirit and a silly one. Sadly, “Neighbors” leans a tad too far to the former.

Neighbors receives 1.5/5